The former EastEnders star puts away his tough guy persona as he hits the dirt in a war zone. He discusses tales from the front line with Kim Sengupta, who has reported from Afghanistan for 'The Independent'
Ross Kemp has had a busy month in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, appearing alongside Bobby Davro at the New Ambassadors theatre in Wimbledon, getting plaudits in the local paper for the way he played the evil henchman of the wicked queen.
But it is what he was doing just before that which was occupying him at the end of last week. He spent the afternoon doing voiceovers for his TV series on Afghanistan where he had been for weeks in the frontline alongside British troops, before dashing later in the evening to the BBC for Andrew Neil's This Week show to talk about gangs, the subject of previous Kemp documentaries. He protests that to use his role as a pantomime star to ridicule his serious work is a cheap shot. Gangs won a Bafta and in Ross Kemp in Afghanistan he goes to places in Helmand where his armchair critics, he points out, were noticeable by their absence.
As someone who has covered a few conflicts including Afghanistan, I can vouch that, whatever the merits or otherwise of the programme, one cannot accuse Kemp and his team of trying to cover the frontline from a distance. They were very much where the bullets were flying.
"I don't see why someone can't do something light-hearted like a panto and also something like Afghanistan," he says.
"In fact it was a good way to relax after what we went through out there. Some of the soldiers I had been with came to see the show and we had a good laugh afterwards. Look, I had phone calls from the sergeant's mess about the series saying "Ross you've done a good job". That's what I care about. I'm not interested in the carping criticism."
It is not surprising that the soldiers and the Ministry of Defence, which facilitated Kemp and his production team, would like the series. There is no questioning of British policy in Afghanistan, any coverage of the ongoing debate among the Western allies about the direction of the mission or any "balance" giving the opposition point of view.
Kemp points out that "we did not go to make a so-called traditional documentary. What we tried to show was what the ordinary soldiers are facing, what they are going through. I have seen incredible bravery from very young guys, the young generation that people write off. Look what they are doing in Helmand, and they are doing it for such appallingly low pay."
Kemp's father served in the army for four years and his regiment was amalgamated with others to form the Royal Anglians, the troops he was with in Afghanistan. "I know the areas they came from, so, yeah, I had an affinity with them. Others in public services – nurses, teachers, the police – have a voice. These guys don't and I hope I can help. We tried to show the reality they are facing on the ground."
The footage, shot with high-definition cameras, is striking and gritty and conveys well the sense of isolation and silence punctured by prolonged bursts of sudden ferocious violence, the fear and excitement, one experiences in the type of combat being undertaken by British forces in Afghanistan. The scenes of ambushes and scrambling under fire, the confusion followed by sheer relief at survival, often expressed by cathartic streams of swearing by Kemp, his crew and the soldiers around them would also be very familiar to anyone who had been there.
Having access to the troops over a prolonged period of time allows the series to show the changes which take place to young soldiers after deployment. Kemp is shocked to find that one trooper, Josh Hill, a fresh-faced 18-year-old back in England seemed to have aged five years when he runs in to him again at Kandahar airbase a few months later. This is very real and something one has seen repeatedly among soldiers, British and American, in Iraq and Afghanistan, after the first taste of combat. They become physically leaner, weather-beaten, introspective with the "thousand yard stare" of people who have seen an awful lot of not very nice things in a very short time. John Conroy, the producer and director of the series, had worked with Kemp on his Gangs programmes, which also used high-definition cameras to impressive dramatic effect. "We had long discussions about the HD cameras. The advantages are pictures of amazing sharpness, how all the awful things of war are caught in a kind of surreal colour, war in all its terrible detail. There was, of course, a price to pay for this."
HD cameras area about four times heavier than the Z-I cameras which are mostly used in this type of filming and more than 20 times more expensive, costing up to £100,000 each. Seeking that high-calibre of footage meant that the crew, including Kemp, had to carry an awful lot of heavy loads on top of their body armour and bandoliers of water bottles needed in the heat of the Afghan deep south.
To prepare themselves they spent weeks alongside the Royal Anglians carrying out their pre-deployment training at Salisbury Plain. They learned to fire SA 80 rifles and .50 calibre machine guns. This is unusual, the British military is not known give firearms training to embedded media, it is certainly not something I or my colleagues have ever been asked to do.
"This really isn't hard man Ross Kemp playing at soldiers, it really isn't," says the presenter. "What happened was that the CO insisted that we must be able to defend ourselves in an emergency situation. That was one of the conditions of us being allowed to go with the troops."
It is not easy for Kemp to avoid being stereotyped. After playing EastEnders hard man Grant Mitchell his next big role was playing SAS man Henno Garvie in ITV's Ultimate Force. This led to a few inevitable "SAS my arse" jibes from real soldiers, although the Royal Anglians I have spoken to say the actor was very careful not to project his screen persona in the field. "He'd have got very short shrift if he did, I can assure you," said a sergeant, grinning, at Camp Bastion, the British headquarters.
Lieutenant Ben Howes, of B Company, met Kemp and the camera team in England and then Helmand. "He got some stick when he first arrived and gave it right back. There may well have been some trepidation when we heard he was coming, but the guys got to like him. What the whole team did as civilians in such a dangerous situation was very brave and they earned our respect."
Lt Howes, 26, from Kent, was with the Sky crew when they became involved in their first firefight north of Sangin. "At the time I was too busy with the combat to worry about how I felt. But when I saw the thing on TV I began to see just how hairy it was, I thought 'bloody hell' that was close."
Kemp says, " There is no question of confusing acting with real life. What's happening in Afghanistan is real.
"Whatever one thinks about the rights and wrongs of sending the troops, it would be good if the public had an understanding of what it's like for the soldiers."
He thinks Afghanistan is a just war but the invasion of Iraq was "obviously a mistake". He does not readily volunteer his political views, his estranged wife Rebekah Wade edits The Sun, a fervent supporter of the Iraq war.
Kemp says: "I wanted to go and film in Iraq and I talked to James Murdoch [the head of Sky and son of Rupert] about it. But it was around the time that David Kelly had killed himself and it was all very sensitive. The MoD was not keen. But yeah, the Iraq invasion was a mistake."
He refuses to speak about his relationship with Ms Wade. "A lot of things have been written about these things but I have never, ever spoken about my private life. I really hate people who feel their private lives should be paraded, and there are magazines like Hello!, OK and Bella totally devoted to this." He admits he once appeared in such a magazine, "but never again. As a nation I am afraid we are interested in peoples' private lives and tittle-tattle, but hopefully people are also interested in more important things like what's going on in Afghanistan."
Before going off to This Week, Kemp grabs a Chinese takeaway. "I'm really not having much of a social life now, it has been amazingly busy." His next project is a documentary on drugs in Thailand for Sky. "I'm going to continue to do what's interesting to me and what I am good at. How people react to that is up to them."
'Ross Kemp in Afghanistan' Mondays at 9pm on Sky One and Sky One HD